Judith (Yehudit)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Judith (Yehudit)

Judith (Yehudit) (ca. 590 B.c.) Jewish hero A feminist HERO during the clash between Jews and the Assyrian Empire engineered about 593 B.c. by Nebuchadnezzar II of Nineveh, Judith is the title figure in anonymous historical fiction written around 150 B.c. and found in the biblical Apocrypha. In a model of Hebrew STORYTELLING, Judith averts destruction of the Jews by beheading Holofernes, an Assyrian siege commander whom the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar dispatched from Nineveh (in present-day southern Iraq) in the early sixth century B.c. Holofernes's raiding and pillaging reached west as far as Damascus. The book of Judith, usually included only in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bibles, is set in the fortified Judean hill country outside Jerusalem. It describes Judith, the wealthy widow of Manasses, as a righteous zealot bearing a generic name meaning “Jewess.” The narrative lauds her as a clever, sexually appealing nationalist who puts an end to Holofernes's marauding. When the Hebrew commander Uzziah ponders capitulating to the Assyrians, she impresses the ranks of male military leaders by proposing a cunning strategy to infiltrate Holofernes's tent.

Uncharacteristic of the usual literary wise woman, Judith exudes femininity. Cloaked in sackcloth and ash, the symbols of bereavement, she prays for divine guidance before perfuming her body, decking herself fetchingly “to allure the eyes of all men that should see her” (Judith 10:4) and posting herself at the gates of the hilltop city of Bethulia, possibly present-day Jenin on Palestine's West Bank. An unnamed but equally bold serving woman bears fruit, grain, bread, oil, and wine and accompanies her mistress past an Assyrian picket. The characterization of Judith depicts her as quickwitted and crafty. She promises to disclose a secret approach to the Jewish stronghold in exchange for safe passage away from the conflict. The patrol leader, fearing a ruse, sends 100 cavalrymen to accompany her to Shechem (present-day Salim, Israel). The book's author names the size of the force to emphasize the courage of Judith and her handmaiden in all-male terrain.

The tension mounts when the protagonist enters enemy territory. At the general's quarters, she beguiles Holofernes for four days by remaining modest while appealing to his vanity, a common trait in literature of empire in which women use trickery as a form of self-empowerment. After an evening of dining and imbibing, Holofernes passes out without seducing Judith, who eats only simple fare from her own foodstuffs, a symbol of self-control before opulence. Her approach to his couch precedes a cry to God for strength, the lopping of his head from the neckbone, and the destruction of bed hangings, proofs of his stature and vainglory as well as evidence of Assyrian decadence. Storing the severed head and bed canopy in her market bag, she returns to Bethulia to announce a triumph.

The psychological value of Judith's bold move serves a military purpose. To the surprise of neighboring nations, the Israelites rout the panicky Assyrians and plunder their camp. Extolled for her valor in slaughtering Nebuchadnezzar's general, Judith and her hymn of triumph (Judith 16:11-17) became a source of female iconography for paintings and statuary, tapestries, fresco, mosaic, stained glass, drama, and opera.


The Apocrypha of the Old Testament. King James Version.

New York: American Bible Society, 1972.